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RESTAURANT REVIEW CAFE BASQUE : Rustic Feast : The atmosphere is warm and cheerful, while the hearty food speaks well of its Pyrenees roots.

January 03, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Basque homeland is a pocket of the western foothills of the Pyrenees straddling Spain and France. It is rugged country, occupied by rugged people who speak a difficult language with no discernible relationship to any other. Basque food, however, is an idiom that can be understood and enjoyed by everyone. It is considered by many to be among the best in the world.

In California, Basque restaurants are typically found in remote parts of the state. The Cafe Basque in Camarillo is no exception, although its sense of remoteness comes from the fact that it is in an isolated industrial park, deserted and somewhat eerie at night. In contrast to its location, the restaurant itself is a warm, cheerful haven--a big barn of a room, festively decorated in red and white checks and filled with decorative touches that seem almost Swiss.

If you come here in the middle of the week, the meals are served family style, and you have only a few choices. The food is set down at the table for everyone on big steaming platters. The weekend menu gives a lot more choices, but it retains the same sense of rustic communal dining. Whatever night of the week, be sure to come with a hearty appetite.

We were no sooner seated than warm, crusty bread appeared, along with a pink, peppery pate. It was followed by a huge bowl of steaming hot vegetable soup which we served ourselves. The soup was clear, filled with the flavor of fresh vegetables. A bowl of plain red beans, served on the side, could be added at will.

There were two appetizers to choose from--tongue or Basque sausage. If you have never had tongue, this is the place to try it. This was very tender, sliced very thin, and coated with a mild vinaigrette; all by itself this dish is worth the trip to the restaurant. The hearty sausage, served in a tomato sauce, had a hard time competing with it. These appetizers were followed by standard salads that came with delicious, creamy vinaigrette.

It can be hard for entrees to shine if they have already been preceded by four courses. The baked short ribs had no problem: it was a good, country-style dish, both meaty and succulent. The breast of chicken, which came in a tart, creamy sauce, was also up to the challenge. The paella, however, was not. Although it was generously filled with fish, the saffron was so powerful that it drowned out all the other flavors.

Most of the entrees, however, were wonderful. Lamb chops du Berger, excellent meat, were topped with a surprising salsa made from chopped tomatoes and plenty of raw garlic. The New York steak was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Roast pork de Campagne was a perfect winter dish, blanketed with a fine gravy. All of them came with a mixture of sauteed vegetables and mounds of mashed potatoes.

Eating this food, with the cheerful encouragement of the staff, was a lot like being at a wonderful feast. Oh, maybe the baked Alaska was really only ice cream cake, but it hardly mattered. This was an impressive, enjoyable dinner--and it spoke our language.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Cafe Basque, 4815 Calle Alto, Camarillo, (805) 388-1436. Lunch, Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Bar, parking lot, Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $18 to $37.

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